Ending arrests for nonjailable violations like minor traffic offenses will reduce tensions at traffic stops, making police and drivers safer
Jail is not an allowable punishment for a traffic violation, yet thousands of Texans are arrested and booked in jail each year for such minor infractions. There are two basic ways this happens. Police can arrest and jail a person at the original traffic stop for that traffic violation. In addition, municipal courts issue more than a million warrants each year for unpaid old tickets. At a roadside stop, police check for warrants and arrest for the old ticket while writing a new one. Arrest escalates what should be a minor exchange into a major incident for both police and drivers. People don’t believe they can be arrested for a traffic infraction. Officers brace for the worst. Things can go badly.
Government debt is not sacred. We don’t allow the cable company to jail people who couldn’t pay their last bill. We shouldn’t allow city officials to jail people over an old ticket. This reform is now on both the Republican and Democratic Party platforms in Texas, and it is time it became law.
In 2017, Sen. Konni Burton filed legislation to eliminate arrests at the original traffic stop. Corrections Committee Chairman James White filed a bill to end “warrant roundups” and eliminate using jail to collect old debt from minor infractions. We expect these bills to be filed again in 2019 and want to put state senators on notice they should be prepared to support these ideas early and often.
Bi-partisan coalition for reform
The following organizations support this proposal: Texas Public Policy Foundation, Empower Texans, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Faith in Texas, Texans for Accountable Government (TAG), ACLU of Texas, Austin Justice Coalition, Texas Fair Defense, and Just Liberty.
These arrests are a drain on time, energy and resources
Booking a person for a minor infraction takes a toll on police time, jail staff time, and judge’s time, not to mention healthcare staff’s time. The booking procedure for a Class C misdemeanor includes processing paperwork, taking mug shots and fingerprints, collecting clothing and personal property, conducting a full body search, checking for warrants, and performing health evaluations and mental health assessments. In Dallas, the wait alone for a nurse to perform a health screening can be 45 minutes, lengthening what can be an hours-long process that keeps officers off of the streets.
Being arrested for a minor traffic violation can have repercussions on a person’s home life, social standing and employment. The driver may have a child waiting to be picked up. Perhaps they have an elderly parent awaiting care. Maybe the driver was headed to work. Most of us have responsibilities, and failure to attend to them is not an option. Jobs are lost, children are uprooted, and dependent parents are left without adequate care.
Harris County Study of Arrests for Fine-Only Charges
The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition reviewed all arrests in Harris County over a 16-week period from July 13, 2016, to October 5, 2016. Of the 23,578 people arrested during this period, 2,567 (11%) were arrested for Class C misdemeanors punishable by a fine only. Of those, 763 people (30%) were arrested on a single Class C misdemeanor charge, mostly for a traffic violation. The remaining 1,804 people were arrested on a combination of fine-only charges, mostly a combination of registration, inspection, vehicle maintenance issues, or other traffic infractions. If this data is representative of the state, then tens of thousands of Texans are arrested on the original traffic infractions each year.
When soccer mom Gail Atwater took the City of Lago Vista to the Supreme Court over her arrest on a seat belt violation, arrests at traffic stops for traffic violations were rare. The dissent in the 2001 decision against Ms. Atwater (5-4) noted: “A broad range of conduct falls into the category of fine-only misdemeanors… Such unbounded discretion [given to law enforcement] carries with it grave potential for abuse. The majority takes comfort in the lack of evidence of ‘an epidemic of unnecessary minor-offense arrests’.” Fifteen years later, we face that epidemic.
Officers with no evidence that a peaceable driver has committed another crime should have to give them a ticket
Police critics defend a practice that allows officers to arrest and jail people on a traffic charge in order to facilitate an impromptu roadside investigation searching for other crimes with no evidence.
Here’s how that works. A driver is pulled over. The officer asks for license, insurance and checks registration. All is well. While standing by the driver’s window, the officer looks inside the car (with a flashlight if at night) and sees nothing. The officer starts to ask the driver questions – where are you going, where did you come from. At this point, there is actually no evidence that the driver has committed some other crime.
What should happen next: the officer, currently having no evidence of another crime, should ask the driver for consent to search the car. The driver has a right to say no. If the answer is no, officer should send the driver on with a ticket, ending the impromptu fishing expedition.
What happens next in thousands of cases: the officer arrests the person for the traffic infraction and searches the car without consent. In most cases (we know this because if contraband were found, the person would be arrested on a drug or gun charge), no evidence is found and the person must now be booked and jailed on the original traffic offense.
This aggressive, wasteful investigation practice makes traffic stops dangerous for both drivers and officers
When drivers are about to be arrested for a simple traffic infraction, they simply don’t believe this is possible. Drivers get irate. Police respond aggressively. Things can go badly.
If Sandra Bland had been given a citation for failure to signal a lane change, and then the officer had sent her on her way, she would be alive today.
If Breaion King had been given a citation for speeding, and then the officer had sent her on her way, the City of Austin would have been spared the expense of a major lawsuit that is still pending in the courts.
If most of the thousands of people arrested and booked on class C misdemeanor charges in Harris County got citations instead, it would free up jail space for housing dangerous people.
Let’s align police practices to driver’s most basic rights and make stops safer for both.